(Please forgive any awkwardness in this post. While I have long wanted to do something of this nature, I never actually have and my attempts can only get better from here.)
It has puzzled me greatly for several years that people don’t review short stories. With a few exceptions (The Metamorphosis springs to mind) most stories are left in a sea of surrounding stories, camouflaged by packaging. Finding reviews of story collections is easy, though they usually offer opinions only on choice cuts. Yet collections, even when themed, are made of singular pieces that are always meant to be taken individually and it is this that does not seem to be done with any regularity. I read a story such as W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Book-Bag’ and finding very little by way of opinion or praise given to it, am seemingly forced by necessity to do so myself. A story collection is not a tin of sardines to be consumed, one just as good as another.
So I give you Saturday Shorts, for those weeks in which I have found a short story fully deserving some degree of individual recognition for its merits. The name comes from my fondness for alliteration (and who isn’t fond of that?) but more importantly, being only human, that if it so happens I slip from a regular posting schedule I may still show up here with something bookish. But enough of that.
In the works of W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) one can see something of a pitched battle between the grand old Victorian writing tradition and the new expressions of modernism, being on the one hand contentedly old-fashioned, offering no experimental breaks with narrative, while on the other hand eager to take advantage of the loosening social strictures to storify taboo subjects. His historical fence-sitting does add some zest to proceedings when sitting down with a story such as 1932’s ‘The Book-Bag.’
As the story progresses it becomes obvious that the titular article has only a tangential bearing on the plot, striking a glancing blow before disappearing from the narrative famous blue raincoat-style. As such, the story divides itself easily into three pieces. It starts as an ode to the delightful inconveniences of reading: Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without – who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him? – and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot. Used as an introduction, this little dissertation can hardly fail to capture the attention of the bookish type as the main character fusses over the trials and tribulations that plague an avid reader, such as being at the mercy of found books (especially on long trips), and at his equally inconvenient solution to the problem: an enormous book-bag. This man identifies himself as a writer and is therefore most likely some sort of authorial stand-in; though if a writer, he doesn’t come across as a good one, traveling through British Malaya in a state of good-natured boredom, saying “it is my business to be curious about people” while failing to exhibit any sign of curiosity towards his host, Mark Featherstone.
The story is set the glory days of the British Empire, of course, and the small towns in Malaya seem constructed as homes-away-from-home, strangely English, where the clubs are outfitted with tennis courts and a fellow can always get the four corners of a bridge table together. Conrad this is not. There’s a certain light humour permeating this introductory part of the narrative which makes its sudden descent into the macabre and tragic all the more surprising. The switch comes when Featherstone selects a life of Byron to read and in his next conversation with the writer questions him about the notion of Byron being in love with his sister. The writer again shows off his magnificent equilibrium, waving aside the notion as being impossible for him to imagine or understand. Featherstone then launches into the story of Tim Hardy, one of the bridge players, and his sister Olive. You can probably tell where that’s going. I’ll let Maugham off the hook for his extremely hamfisted use of foreshadowing, because it very well mightn’t have been his intention to be subtle (he’s not O. Henry after all).
In telling the story of Tim and Olive Hardy, Featherstone becomes the main character and certain problems arise, mainly from the throwback Victorian narration. Put simply: Featherstone can remember everything that happened in the past, is capable of keeping everything in perfectly linear order and can replicate old lines of dialogue at leisure. There is no moment when he backtracks, or skirts the edge of a painful issue, or hesitates, or says “sorry, I forgot to mention,” or showcases the vaguest sense of unreliability. Even expert storytellers can’t replicate prose narrative like that – they’ll fragment naturally and the soul of the story will come as clearly through the gaps as through the details given. Thus ‘The Book-Bag’ shows its age.
Part Two. (Those who care greatly for spoilers may skip this segment)
One of the more interesting elements of the story itself is the total lack of judgement upon the Hardy siblings. Things go badly wrong for them when Tim leaves for England, delaying his return for some sinister purpose (which turns out to be marriage). What exactly is his motivation? This is never made clear anymore than the reasons for Olive’s refusal to marry Featherstone are. Small hints and speculations, but the odd thing about it is how idyllic their life is indicated to be, how content they (or perhaps just Olive) are and how they are portrayed as kind, charming and sympathetic people. While the red flags raised on Tim’s sailing to England are more than justified, neither of them are shown to be twisted by anything beyond unendurable stress. Olive, object of affection that she is, naturally comes with slightly more detail than Tim and odd glimpses are given of her formative years that imply rather more than first meets the eye. “She told me a lot about her life in Florence with her mother. She had led a strange lonely life, mostly with servants and governesses, while her mother, I suspected, engaged in one affair after another with vague Italian counts and Russian princes. I guessed that by the time she was fourteen there wasn’t much she didn’t know. It was natural for her to be quite unconventional: in the only world she knew till she was eighteen conventions weren’t mentioned because they didn’t exist.” However, because of that throwback Victorian delicacy, nothing is ever explicitly named in the text. My first reading of the story left me rather frustrated on that account, but on closer examination, enigmas are rewarding.
For a final note, I will mention the theory of perspective. This story Maugham chose to tell in an extremely softened form, not only battened down by time and distance, but told as well to a third-party, a man who has no emotional involvement, who can refer to it as a singular history rather than a tragedy. Either Maugham wanted to shoehorn his vignette about traveling with books into some longer piece or he wished to avoid engaging emotionally with the story more than was necessary in the telling of it (rather as he would have had to do as a doctor).
Or so it seems to me.
A Note on Editions: ‘The Book-Bag’ was first made widely available in the collection Ah King in 1933. I believe that book has been reprinted by Oxford World’s Classics. Or if you prefer, since Maugham is still renowned for his short stories, you could find his Collected Stories, either in 4 volumes from Penguin or in a compact Everyman hardcover. See, I do my research.
There it is, then. Just an experiment in the field of reviewing.